Piano is one of the world’s busiest architects. His new Whitney Museum in New York is set to open soon, and he’s currently working on Columbia University’s new Harlem campus and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
But in a recent interview, NPR asked the 77-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect not about new buildings — but about cities. In the 1960s and ’70s, like many of his contemporaries, Piano was involved in the battle to revive forlorn and decaying historic centers of cities. Now he’s fighting to save their often desolate outskirts.
Unlike the suburbs of U.S. cities, which are often well off, the suburbs of many European cities tend to be the poorest parts of the metropolitan area.
“This battle is going to be longer and more difficult,” he says, “because the periphery of the cities are not beautiful, of course; they are not well treated. But they are the future of the city; or they are the city of the future, if you prefer.”
Whatever he calls them, Piano believes “the suburbs are the place where energy is in the city — in the good, in the bad. When you say Milan or Rome or Paris or London, you mean that 10 percent of people [living] in the real center. But the 90 percent live in the outskirts.”
And there’s too much prejudice about those outlying neighborhoods. “They were built not with love and affection,” the architect says. “They are like a symbol of disease, of suffering, of bad environment. And that is not true. There is a kind of beauty in the suburbs.”
Piano believes it’s the architect’s civic duty to seize even the tiniest fragment of beauty and nourish it. And two years ago, when Italy’s president named him an honorary senator for life, Piano put his ideas into practice. He handed over his new, spacious office and hefty salary to a team of young architects, and tasked them with trying to salvage the fraying outskirts of Italian cities. ….